Thursday, April 06, 2006

Volunteers, volentieri

Today I am thinking about volunteers.

Please allow me to ramble, as I'm not sure where these thoughts are going.

I think of my grandmother as we walked around watering the various growing things in her yard. Sometimes she would point out a flower and say, "Look! That one is a volunteer!"

As a child, I didn't quite understand that. I knew volunteers were people who raised their hands when the teacher asked for someone to read aloud, someone to help move the chairs, or someone to take something down the hall to another teacher. I knew it had something to do with being willing, so I didn't see how a plant could fit that criterion.

Of course now I understand that a "volunteer" plant is one that was not intentionally planted, or perhaps was planted, but finds its way to an area it wasn't specifically intended for. Or it lives longer than expected and comes up as a surprise when all the others have, so to speak, given up.

And the joy of a volunteer plant is that surprise quality, that sense of grace it brings with it, because the gardener didn't do anything to make it happen. It isn't just doing what is expected of it.

Last night I was able to attend the Jefferson Awards Ceremony, which honors people for their volunteer work. Friends and I were there in honor of our dear Carolyn Batey, an amazing woman in many ways. It was humbling to sit there and hear person after person introduced, with a synopsis of the lives they live and the service they provide. Not because someone expects them to, or because they have to. But because they are willing to. And often they do it without pay.

In Italy, when someone asks you if you can do something, or would like to do something, a common response is, "Volentieri!" In my dictionary it is translated, "Certainly!" or "I'd be glad to!"

And, basically, that's how it's used in common parlance. (Although "common parlance" isn't reaaly common parlance anymore, is it?) It is always said with an exclamation mark, and generally when the idea is a pleasing one. As in, "Would you like to come with us for ice cream?" "O, si', volentieri!"

I have found it easy to think of volunteering as something done in free time, without pay, and the common use of the Italian word would add the idea of always enjoying the activity to the word.

And not all of us can "volunteer" a lot in that sense. After the ceremony last night, we were talking with a shop employee in the mall. As we told her about the ceremony, she lamented that she works 50 hours a week and spends time with her several grandchildren, and simply doesn't have time for the "volunteer" work she used to do.

But today I am thinking about the word and the fact that it comes from the word for will, as in our will to do or not do whatever it is we do. My dictionary says a volunteer is "one who enters into or offers himself for a service of his own free will."

So, even if we are paid, and even if we don't always take delight in what we do, if we do it out of our own free will, we are volunteering.

In a sense, then, we are all volunteers. Whether we have a paying job or work at home, or are in the process of trying to figure out what to do, we have made choices of our own will to do what we are doing. Even if we are in a state of life we have not chosen, from our own free will we choose what our attitude to that state of life will be.

And perhaps it is our attitudes more than anything that make us like the flowers that "volunteer." When someone lives their life with purpose, with gratitude, with grace, that is the surprise. Because no one can make another person do that. Even God, the original gardener, can't make us work with our will.

Come to think of it, that is what really warmed my heart last night. It wasn't just what the award recipients had done that made such an impression, although that was important. It was that through their stories, and in their faces, it was clear that they believed in what they did, and they did it from the heart.

They live their lives "volentieri." And so can we all.


Lawrence Underwood said...

And, you live in the Volunteer state.

Sheila said...

How perceptive you are. That had not crossed my mind.

Askinstoo said...
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